Saturday, February 26, 2011

Writing Back Cover Copy, or Turning 90,000 Words Into 150

The skills it takes to write long-form fiction are most definitely not the same as those required to write snappy, attention-catching back cover copy. I knew this instinctively, and the belief was fully confirmed when I attempted the task for myself. Fortunately, I have a clear strategy that includes hiring experts to do the things I am not great at, and even more fortunately, I already knew of a tremendously talented resource in the form of Jane Roper, whom I ultimately hired. Jane is herself an author of wonderful fiction and non-fiction, and her "day job" is a freelance copy writer. I know Jane through Grub Street, and she'd always been superb at coming up with headlines, event titles (she coined The Muse & the Marketplace, for instance), and the like -- anything requiring pithy brilliance. So here's how it played out for Annie Begins:

I started here, which was my own best attempt to summarize the novel:

At almost 29, Annie Thompson is as brilliant in business as she is disastrous in relationships. Determined to set the emerging Internet world on fire and rise above her modest beginnings, Annie’s also a sucker for charming men who want something from her. So, when her ideal man announces his wife is divorcing him and designates Annie “the best listener he knows,” the sudden emotional intimacy and mixed signals threaten to disrupt Annie’s single-minded focus on work.

In pursuit of Mr. Tall, Dark, and Barely Available while juggling an intense start-up schedule, Annie is halted by a young cousin named April, newly diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, who makes finding a husband for Annie her dying project. With the clear-eyed insight of a truly old soul, April handpicks a fiancĂ© for her cousin, but he’s most certainly not who Annie would have chosen. Only with April’s death and the help of an unlikely additional matchmaker does Annie realize the wisdom of the little girl’s choice, which challenges every assumption that had driven Annie so hard in the first place, and reveals what she most deeply values in a man—and in herself.

And with Jane’s expert help, we ended here:

At almost 29, Annie Thompson is as brilliant in business as she is disastrous in relationships. It’s the dawn of the dot-com boom, and Annie is determined to make it big. But her single-minded focus on work is put to the test when the man of her dreams announces that his wife is divorcing him, and designates Annie “the best listener he knows.” Suddenly she’s juggling his mixed signals and her entrepreneurial ambitions—not to mention a complicated friendship with her new supervixen of a roommate.

Annie's pursuit of Mr. Tall, Dark and Barely Available takes a turn for the unexpected when her young, terminally ill cousin, April, makes it her mission to find Annie a husband. But the fiancĂ© April picks is definitely not the kind of man Annie would have chosen. Now, Annie has to ask herself what exactly she wants and values most deeply in a man—and in herself.

Shorter, better, and something I would’ve struggled to achieve on my own!

Karen McQuestion has a great blog post on this topic and offers these basic tips for formulating a book description, which I think are super useful:

1) Establish the main character and his current situation
2) Tell about the change (or the happening, or what have you)
3) Allude to what happens next in vague, but exciting terms
4) Don't be afraid of hype
5) Use strong verbs and specific nouns.

This book description is used for back cover copy, on your web site, author page, in promotional materials, and myriad other places so it’s critical to get it right. Good luck!


  1. Great edits, though I miss the word "halted" in the revised version. Following Karen's advice, "halted" is a strong, specific verb that makes me envision Annie having all the reins pulled back on her, which it seems she needs. You really used it well in your first version.

  2. Ooh I love this!!!! Thanks for the tips! : )